Smithsonian: Armenia’s “Tree of Life” tradition took root thousands of years ago

Photo: Kathryn Mitchell


Armenia’s engagement with the tree of life motif runs y deep, dating back to unrecorded time prior to the dawn of Christianity, the writes.

As Armenian symbolic anthropologist Levon Abrahamian explains, sigils on ancient figurines illustrate that people from the region revered the image of the tree long before the crystallization of a coherent Armenian national identity.

Even humble kitchenware speaks to the enduring importance of the tree of life in the Armenian household. “Vessels used in the kitchen for keeping oil or other products often have a primitive tree design, symbolizing life-giving properties of the vessel,” Abrahamian told the magazine.

According to him, the iconography “can be traced back as far as Armenian culture can be identified – some three thousand years.”

“The Tree of Life motif frequently appears on khachkars in the form of sprouting, bursting, blooming and fruit-bearing crosses, and its presence on gravestones anticipates the resurrection of those who have passed away,” Abrahamyan said.

Living trees in the churchyard have also come to take on spiritual significance. “People hang pieces of their clothes or the clothes of sick relatives on the branches,” says Abrahamian, “anticipating health or curing for the people to whom those clothes belonged.”

Some sacred trees in Armenia are conceptualized more broadly as “trees of wishes,” where anyone may express a sincere wish and leave a token of themselves behind.

At this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which concluded this past weekend, organizers blended the tree of life tradition with Armenia’s rich background in the art of crochet, inviting visitors to learn crochet techniques, create personalized designs, and attach them to the limbs of a wooden tree-like scaffold in a figurative and literal coming-together. This activity was made possible by donations from the Armenia Tree Project.

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